What Is Story Structure?

Whether you’re a writer or a photographer, story structure is an important part of book-making. To explain story structure, I like to start with the difference between a portfolio and a traditional novel or photo book. A portfolio is a curated collection of your best work, but it may or may not tell a story. A traditional novel or photo book, on the other hand, usually has a narrative arc. The best books, photography or written, take story structure seriously.

The Definition of Story Structure

Story structure is the backbone of your entire book-making project. It is the order and manner in which the narrative is presented, establishing the setting and the plot. So, what are the elements of story structure?

The Opener

The opener is where you establish who your story is about and what this person or persons actually has to do. What challenges will they face? What is their specific situation and what will they need to overcome? Remember, the opener has to be intriguing enough to hook your reader.

The Incident

Stage two is the incident. The incident is the catalyst or instigating force that forces your main character to act. It works as a setup for stage three …

The Crisis

Remember, a crisis must be realistic and related to the plot. If your character experiences more than one crisis each should build on the last, heightening the tension or sense of danger.

The Climax

Stage four is the climax—the height of the crisis, or bottom depending on how you look at it. At this stage, the character is at his or her end. Hopeless, injured, seemingly out of options. The climax is not the end of the book, but it is the beginning of the end.

The Ending

The final stage of story structure is the ending. Success or failure are both valid, but the ending presents the conclusion of your story. The ending should close the loop on all plot twists and loose ends but could also leave the reader wanting more. (Hello, sequel!)

Types of Story Structure

Now that we have covered the basics of story structure there is another question to be asked. How many types of story structures are there? Well, according to English author and journalist Christopher Booker, there are a grand total of seven archetypal story structures, and they are as follows:

Overcoming the Monster
Examples: Beowulf, Jaws, David & Goliath

Rags to Riches
Examples: Jane Eyre, The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella

The Quest
Examples: The Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey, Finding Nemo

Voyage and Return
Examples: Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia

Examples: Pride & Prejudice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Carry on Jeeves

Examples: Romeo & Juliet, Anna Karenina, Macbeth

Examples: A Christmas Carol, Beauty & The Beast, The Secret Garden

The bulk of this post is generally seen as more applicable to those of us working with the written word. But this same knowledge can also apply to things like filmmaking and still photography. A great photography book tells a story and takes the viewer on the same narrative arc or adventure. So next time you are beginning to design your book keep story structure in mind.  


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